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One-nil just fine, but should’ve been two

Harsha Bhogle

Posted: Dec 30, 2011 at 1258 hrs IST
      

: An anomalous statistic has been buried, an oddity has been consigned to the bin. India’s awful record in New Zealand was an aberration, irrespective of the reasons trotted out for it. It was as if Shankar Mahadevan found Malkauns insurmountable, as if Sanjeev Kapoor suddenly froze when confronted by a recipe for stuffed karela. It was about time. It helped that New Zealand have been an ordinary side for a while, lacking in authority with the new ball — whether bowling it or facing it. It helped that the pitches were unrecognisable from those served up six years ago, almost as if someone was over-compensating for an error. But India have been a better side than New Zealand in the past without ever letting anyone know.

But surely it should have been 2-0. Dhoni, often ready to go into battle with a shotgun, suddenly felt the need for greater caution. And so while bunkers were being built, anti-aircraft guns brought out, the enemy slipped away. 500 has never been threatened, 530 would have made India impregnable; it was the last 80 that saved New Zealand. Dhoni thought he needed another ten overs, he could have chosen to have had another fifteen. It was a strangely defensive thought from someone who has been so enterprising. Winning the series was his first priority, winning the Test his second, as it was with Rahul Dravid in 2007 in England. But you can’t help thinking that the first objective had long been met and the second was inevitable. As inevitable as the rain that had long been forecast.

And so 1-0 it shall be and that too is a feather in Dhoni’s cap. He kept wickets well, his development in this area is an indicator of what a good cricketer he is, and he batted solidly but more than anything else, it is his ability to keep the team happy and focussed that is enviable. The seniors look comfortable and the younger players are taking decisive steps towards playing bigger roles. It could have been a troubled transition but like Mandela’s South Africa it is proving smoother than imagined.

Not surprisingly Gautam Gambhir was the central figure; whether pressing on for runs or defending stoically. It is easy for Gambhir to slip below the radar of the opposition, consumed as they tend to be by the stellar names all around him. But after two magnificent series, one at home against the world champions and one away against prickly opposition, it is unlikely that will ever happen again. There have been two turning points in recent times for Gambhir; one an achievement, the other an embarrassment. His double hundred against Australia proved he could adapt and the elbow into Shane Watson’s side showed him how much his enemy lay within. It is to the credit of this otherwise quiet young man that he has drawn strength from both. The transition from anger to determination is also the transition from fragility to strength and hopefully Gambhir will connect with one rather than the other as he marches ahead on what should be a long and distinguished career.

Anger has also limited Harbhajan Singh’s progress in the past. Eleven months after his raised hand found Sreesanth’s cheek, the off-spinner looks to be bowling with the guile that only a calm mind can deliver. Bowling into the breeze in Wellington, he found drift and turn and used flight more beautifully than he has for a long time now. But his career graph has been peculiar — periods of great success have been harbingers of poor times. Every time success knocked at his door you wondered who it had brought along. But in New Zealand he seemed more assured, more relaxed and those maddening darts that he sometimes aims at leg stump were gone. With Harbhajan it has never been a question of understanding bowling, rather of understanding himself.

If Gambhir set the tone against the new ball, Zaheer Khan did it with ball in hand. Like with Harbhajan, and in greater measure, there is a calmness about Zaheer now; indeed has been for the last two years. Since Kapil Dev appeared in 1978, there have been only two new standout new ball bowlers; him and Javagal Srinath. Now a third can safely be added to that list. His form has ensured that the one weakness in the side, a third seamer, didn’t cause too many problems. Now India must ensure that two outstanding prospects, Sreesanth and RP Singh don’t let their lack of focus drown their ability.

And what joy too that Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman batted with poise and assurance. Their continued solidity means India can buy more time in the search for replacements; it is much-needed time too, for nobody is knocking the door down just yet.

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